Thursday, May 29, 2014

The pull to simplify


This winter was brutal. Not just because of the neverending snow days (10! Our kids had 10 snow days! And a handful of late openings, which wreak even worse havoc on routines), but also because of the evening schedule, my daily work load, and the pick-up in my travel dates. I was a miserable cuss by February. 

I felt like there was not nearly enough of me to go around. Always torn between my home and work responsibilities, I had a horrible time managing my time, focusing on tasks, and getting things done -- in the office and at home. I was working all day, regardless of whether the office was closed because of snow, and I was logging on after the kids were in bed because the list of tasks was just growing and looming. I wasn't getting enough sleep, and I was waking up feeling even more tired than I had at bedtime. Burning the candle at both ends, my mom used to call this. 

I became short-tempered. I became sad. I became frustrated. Around mid-March, during a snuggle session with our new kitty, Nacho, feeling his motor-boat purr against my belly, I realized that I needed to get a grip. I needed more snuggle time. I needed more play time. I needed to do just one thing at a time. And I needed to give myself permission to let some of the to-do list items fall off.

Breathing space. Simplification. Focus on what's important. As the snow melted and the daffodils started pushing through, the universe also put some heart-opening words in front of me:

(1) My "Star Word" for 2014 is grace. Every couple of years my church does a fabulous word study exercise in which all congregants select a word on a star, at random, to guide reflection and self-study through the year. Sermons center on certain of these words, but mostly you just post the star on your mirror, pray about it, study some key texts in the Bible, and move along with your life. My word, though, is just so big. I couldn't just move on. It's at the heart of me and my spiritual journey and my life goals. Grace. Gracious. Grateful. I'll write more about my thoughts on grace in another post (way too much here for a paragraph!), but the bottom line is this: I realized I need to giving myself grace when I screw up, when I let go of energy-sucking tasks in my life. Grace is linked to forgiveness and absolution of guilt, to abundance of spirit, to moving with fluidity and poise. These are all aspects of myself I'm striving to enhance, aspects of others I'm striving to encourage. Grace. The word itself is a whisper, a gentle breath, a pause. Grace lets me make decisions based on what I need, not based on what others expect.


(2) Driving home one February afternoon in a panic to catch Happy at the school bus, I tuned in to NPR's Fresh Air in an attempt to focus my mind on something other than the 79 deadlines that I was blowing, the brownies I had to bake for preschool the next day, the bills I forgot to pay, and the endless homework grumbling I was about to encounter from the grumpy third grader on our way to piano lessons. Terry Gross was interviewing Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. I almost drove off the road nodding my head so vehemently: Schulte was speaking from my very own heart about the pull working parents, especially, feel in too many directions. We're fragmented. But here's the kicker: We don't have to be. We have plenty of time for "leisure" (and an exercise in my church parents' group revealed startling differences between men's and women's definitions of this word) if we make it a point to do one thing at a time, unplug from our work, turn off our smart phones and iPads from time to time, and  say no to anything we don't truly want to do. What is this crazy talk? Unplug? Say no? Focus on what I want to do?! The second I walked in the door, I downloaded the book -- and I read it on the plane on my way to and from Denver later that week. I can't say that this book told me a whole lot that I didn't know, but the message was clear and invaluable. My eyes opened to decisions that I had to start to making for myself and my family.



(3) My pastor and dear friend recommended a book a few months ago titled 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, by Jen Hatmaker. As the website blurb states, "7 is the true story of how Jen took seven months, identified seven areas of excess, and made seven simple choices to fight
back against the modern-day diseases of greed, materialism, and overindulgence." Hatmaker focused month by month on food, clothing, possessions, screen time, waste, spending, and stress. While I didn't agree with her methodology, the message rings loudly into my head and heart. Simplify. Pay attention to and be grateful for the abundance around you; give away what you don't need to those who do. Breathe. Turn off the television/smart phone/video games and go outside to look for worms in the garden. Pray. Don't be a slave to your possessions, but focus more intently on spiritual growth and strengthening your relationships with family and friends. Live. 

(4) A friend's Facebook page led me to the "Becoming Minimalist" blog, as well as some of the short ebooks by blogger Joshua Becker. This guy makes sense, y'all. Minimalism doesn't have to mean throwing away all your furniture and sitting on the floor cross-legged in your hand-woven hemp tunic sipping on herbal tea while pondering the meaning of life. Maybe for some people it does, but not for me. What appeals to me about Becker's words is the encouragement to choose what's important to you and your family, then making conscious decisions about how to enhance those elements -- and how to leave behind others. This message coincides with the heart of Hatmaker's 7 Experiment. Instead of possessions and consumerist ideals controlling our decision making, we control what's essential for our own lives. That's it. Opening up space for joy and wonder and deliciousness. Simply living. 

I've long felt a pull toward some of these notions -- most of you know I have hippie tendencies, after all -- but it's only been in the past few weeks that I've paused and prayed and let it all soak in. It seems like a really good time for my family, with children who are growing more and more focused on possessing things -- toys, books, games -- but who are also old enough to start understanding why we make the choices that we do and how our choices affect our lives, other people, and the world around us. 

And my guiding star word -- grace -- is not insignificant. I'm not making decisions out of guilt or stress, but out of mindfulness and gratitude. I'm seeking joy instead of just ticking down the to-do list. This means the floors haven't been mopped in weeks, but I listened to Zippy cooing to the baby squash plants that we planted last week, then had a wicked water gun battle with him and Happy in the yard. This means I'm only accomplishing 8 hours worth of work each weekday, but I'm also discovering new books with Zippy and watching Happy draw his comic books -- then having actual conversations with my husband after the kids go to bed. It's hard for me to even express how beautiful this feels. And it's hard for me to communicate this with people who only know me superficially; it's possible I sound like a lunatic, or it's possible they think this is a passing phase. That's okay. I have grace about all of that, shedding that insecurity over what people think about me. I danced in the middle of the elementary school gym last week, for goodness sake. Joyfully in the moment. 

The truth is there's a real shift happening in me. It's been happening since Honey lost his job just before Zippy was born -- that was four years ago -- when I realized we may lose our home and our furniture and our cars, and we might have to eat nothing but Ramen and peanut butter sandwiches, but I was okay with all of that because I had my family and we were safe and healthy. In fact, Honey and I discussed more than once just walking away from all of it, leaving the house keys under the mat and heading to the airport with the last of our savings. I have a vision of us standing in front of the airport departures board -- with just the possessions in our backpacks, a kid's hand in one hand and a cat carrier in the other -- deciding where to start over. That daydream recurs often.

Even though now we are financially better off than we ever have been, I still feel this pull to simplify. This spring, as the trees turn green again, the pull is strong. I'm noticing it sharply, in fact, like when I walk through the Christmas Tree Shops and feel physically uncomfortable surrounded by so much throw-away junk -- and people filling grocery carts with it. Or when I tear into the coffee pod wrapper at work and realize how horribly wasteful all these little plastic baggies are and decide to brew coffee in the pot upstairs instead (because I can use those grounds for compost, too -- bonus!). Or when my stomach turns over at the smell of the meat counter at the grocery store because, oh my word, I know where that stuff came from. 

This pull to simplify is not just for simplification's sake, though. It's a recognition of just how much we have, and a need to give more back to the world. Gratefully. Graciously. 

A few of my church family have been moved by Hatmaker's book and have felt the pull recently, so we have started our own 7 experiment. (Ours is called "7+ for 7" because there are more than 7 of us, and we've included families, and we just may extend it beyond seven months). The first month in Hatmaker's journey centered on food, so we have started there too. Each family is doing something different, which I love, because we're all making decisions based on our own needs -- again, mindfully and without guilt. 

My family has decided to be vegetarians for the month of June, in an attempt to focus on making healthy choices, saving money, and living in a more sustainable, earth-friendly manner. We want to pay attention to the food we eat because we often take it for granted, stopping at Wawa for a sub or hopping to the grocery market for milk and random snacks. This shift to meatlessness won't be easy, but I'm excited that all four of us agreed to it together and we're learning together. We'll probably be hungry for a few days as we adjust, and we'll probably mourn the grilled hamburger at least a handful of times as our neighbors fire up their grills. And we'll surely slip up -- or even make conscious decisions to eat meat in certain situations. But we're giving ourselves the grace to slip and keep going. 

I have a feeling this month of food-focused simplification will be way easier, too, than the coming months, when we'll focus on clothing, possessions, screen time, and waste. I just breathed deeply as I typed that sentence. One step at a time, as this is truly about the journey.



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